So, my trekking/climbing resume has grown significantly since my initial failed attempt on Mt. Lyell that started my whole affair with mountains. Some climbs have been guided and some unguided (and others might say that some have been misguided). The guided climbs have been interesting, in unanticipated ways. They invite examination of the sociology of small groups, particularly when that small group really doesn’t know each other. All of a sudden, there you are – with 4 or 5 or 6 other people, thrown together in tight quarters (including sharing a tent with a complete stranger) by virtue of your common interest in one very specific thing that is just a small part of what defines you as a person. How does this work out – how do people come together (or not) around this common activity (i.e., climbing)? In my experience, often not so well.
In some ways signing up for a guided climb on your own is like using a dating service, except that the dating service goes to much greater lengths to ensure compatibility. Pretty consistently, at least for me, each trip has ended up being an interesting psychological experiment and a journey of rediscovering who you are and how well you can relate to others in circumstances which are often trying, where you are discovering how close you can get to your own personal limits. Managing just that is a big load but throw in the need to recognize and manage a whole additional set of new relationships with people who are also exploring their own personal limits and, well it becomes very interesting indeed and not always pleasant. This aspect is something that I never anticipated as I first entered this new world/culture of climbing.
But, this is all rather predictable, is it not? Climbing is very much an extremely challenging, intensive and at the same time self-centered activity and it attracts very motivated, acutely goal oriented, high achievers. Combine this with the fact that you have plunked down a significant sum of money to achieve a very specific personal objective (i.e., getting to a summit) and you have the very real potential for conflict of the interpersonnel variety. I’m not saying that this is destined to happen. In my own climbs, it hasn’t happened each time. It is just that the odds really stack up in that direction and it takes a lot of effort to counteract it, and that effort does not always meet with success.
The first time I entered this world, I had, of course, not anticipated any of these nuances. I just walked into it. But I quickly figured it out. Here’s how all of these trips begin – you sit down and one by one the clients introduce themselves to the other climbers and the guides by describing their past experiences on mountains. The process of sizing each other up begins immediately. And, the unfortunate, unspoken theme is “Who is the weak link here? Who is going to flame out on summit day and possibly force the team to turn around, ruining my summit attempt (where “my” is the perspective of each client in the group)”? This is never voiced outright but it always seems to come up in some more civilized way, as in a client asking what will happen if someone is unable to continue.
As I sat in the hotel in Kathmandu at the start of the Lhakpa Ri trip and experienced all of this for the first time, my reaction bordered on outright panic. It was clear to me less than 2 minutes into this “get to know you” session that I was the leading candidate to screw the pooch on the climb (and it wasn’t just me coming to this conclusion). The lead guide was an Everest summiter, the other clients were using this as a warm up for a future climb of an 8,000m Himalayan giant and then perhaps Everest itself. The only place where I held the upper hand was in number of Everest mountaineering books read (and packed to read on the trip).
It would make for a nice story to lay out how I overcame these low expectations, won over the other clients, and by the end of the climb we were all successful, singing kumbaya on our way to the summit. But, that is not real life and so that is not what happened. – reality happened. Climbing is hard, training is important and experience even more so. And so, for me, discovering all of that is what happened for me. All really valuable stuff but in the end, very much a solitary journey, even if an important one to take. It is something that I carried forward with me in the subsequent guided climbs in which I participated. And being sensitive to this aspect, certainly added a very interesting dimension to the trips – observing how group dynamics develop, how they are influenced by the personalities of both the other clients and the guides themselves. It’s a tricky thing.
Which brings me back around to contemplating thru hiking the AT, climbing 500,000 ft
up, walking 2,000+ miles. The sheer amount of time that it takes to complete the AT, compared to a guided climb of even a major peak, allows, it seems, for a very different dynamic to develop. As I’ve talked with folks who have done this, what has really impressed me the most is their refrain – that thru hikers become a close knit community and this happens by conscious choice, not by being thrown/forced together. There is ample opportunity both in time and miles for people along the trail to sort themselves out. The most lasting lesson that people take from the hike seems to be not the distance traveled, the vertical feet gained or the goal striven for (and perhaps achieved) but instead the connections made with other people they meet along the trail and in the towns. A reaffirmation of the value of a good deed done just for the sake of doing a good deed, simple acts of kindness and fellowship. I want to experience this for myself. A different sort of close company.